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One of the World's Most Enduring Stereotypes

So Chinese military commanders doubt America's ability to fight and suffer losses, saying "You don't have the will" ("Face-Off Over Taiwan Led to a U.S.-China Strategic Partnership" by the Washington Post's Barton Gellman, International Herald Tribune, June 22, 1998).

The world's image of the American democracy as a cushioned people, undisciplined, and unwilling and/or unable to fight and/or accept casualties is quite possibly one of the world's most enduring stereotypes. It is also a persistently wrong — and damaging — one.

And it does not date from Vietnam, but goes back through history to the beginnings of the nation. The latest Chinese thinking sounds awfully familiar to that of Saddam Hussein before his invasion of Kuwait and, more pertinently perhaps, to that of the communists of the early 1950s, when Mao and Stalin were convinced that Americans would never intervene in Korea.

A decade earlier, Japan sent an armada towards Hawaii, convinced that if a crushing air strike claimed enough lives and crippled America's military strength, U.S. morale would never recover. Hitler concurred, declaring war a few days after Pearl Harbor. The Führer had evidently not learned the lesson of the Kaiser, whose staff pooh-poohed U.S. intervention in World War I, saying there was nothing to fear from harassing American shipping. As Spain and America went to fight over Madrid's colonial possessions one century ago, Spaniards viewed the U.S. military with contempt, charging it was undisciplined and useless and could never win the Spanish-American War.

In 1860-1861, as the Southern states attempted to secede from the U.S., European observers confidently predicted that either the Yankees or the Rebels (or both) would lose heart at the first sign of bloodletting, and fighting would then quickly come to an end.

Although it is common today to dismiss the Mexican War as an easy and unfair land grab by U.S. expansionists, the Mexicans of the 1840s (whose army was six times greater than the American one [with some 30,000 men to America's 5,500]) expected to win over the undisciplined gringos. They must've forgotten the lesson of a decade earlier, when a handful of Americans secured Texas independence at the Battle of San Jacinto.

And going all the way back to America's beginnings, one finds Britain, the world's superpower in the 1770s, dismissing the colonists as cushioned and its redcoats mocking them in a song about an uncouth and unsophisticated Yankee Doodle Dandy. The revolutionaries didn't take offense, but adopted the song as their anthem, and went on to fight to victory.

Instead of focusing on Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and even Vietnam, the Chinese leadership would do better to take a more encompassing view of U.S. history and study how previous would-be conquerors and overconfident military stategists have misread the American democracy's ability and will to fight and to do so until final victory.

14 July 1998

© Erik Svane

Some Thoughts on American Patriotism